ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Beyond Imperial Histories

An alternative historical research must be critical of the fixation with imperial histories.

Kumkum Roy writes:

In a recent speech, the Union Minister of Home Affairs shared his understanding of historical events and recommended certain goals for historians to pursue. Before drawing attention to the alternative historical possibilities that have emerged and attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent decades, it is important to emphasise that this historical understanding and objectives are interconnected.

The home minister informed historians that there were several empires apart from that of the Mughals, and it was necessary to concentrate on these, providing a list of as many as seven imperial powers, including the Mauryas and the Guptas. About the Mauryas, he announced that they ruled for 500 years and governed the entire country from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. Both the statements are, unfortunately, wrong. The Mauryas ruled for about 136 years, and areas like the present-day Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, and the North East were not part of the empire.

About the Guptas, we were informed that Samudragupta envisioned a united India for the first time. It may be worth considering how this “unity” was achieved. In his famous inscription, the Prayag Prashasti, Samudragupta is described as the exterminator of kings of Aryavarta. His policy towards the rulers of the south (Dakshinapatha) was different—he captured them, but reinstated them once they accepted his authority. He also reduced the kings of the forest, the atavi rajas, to servitude. Further, he compelled the rulers of parts of Bengal, Assam, Nepal, the north west, and other areas to offer tribute and pay homage at his court. While these strategies may have been successful for empire-building, what it meant for the ordinary people and the rulers of these diverse parts of the subcontinent can only be imagined. Warfare, whatever its objectives, almost invariably takes a heavy toll, disrupting the lives of the people who may have little or no say in the matter, and who end up paying a heavy price for the ambitious exploits of rulers.

The minister’s anxieties about the absence of scholarship on Indian empires are also somewhat misplaced. There has been abundant and diverse scholarship on virtually all the ruling lineages that he has named. To cite just one example, a massive volume (State, Power and Legitimacy: The Gupta Kingdom, New Delhi, Primus, 2019), running into over 900 pages, containing 49 articles, has been compiled by Kunal Chakrabarti and Kanad Sinha. Further, hitherto ignored rulers such as the Ahoms have now found space even in school textbooks (for example, Our Pasts, NCERT Class VII, pp 99–100). Also worth keeping in mind is that scholarship on the Mughal Empire has not necessarily been hagiographical. There have been critical discussions on a whole range of policies adopted by the Mughal emperors. To reduce this rich tradition of scholarship and debate into a narrow focus on inclusion or exclusion of specific empires in scholarly discourse is unfortunate, to say the least.

Perhaps, more important, even while dynastic histories remain significant, recent decades have witnessed a broadening of the focus on history. As a result, instead of concentrating oprimarily on ruling lineages and battles, with their inevitable victories and defeats, other themes have received more attention. These include economic histories, where historians have painstakingly reconstructed several structures and processes. Many of these histories discuss the questions of access to resources, such as land, water, forests, and technologies, and explore how such access changed over time in different parts of the subcontinent. There have also been discussions on the development of trade networks—both within the subcontinent as well as beyond—and craft production, among other things.

Other areas that have been investigated pertain to social his­tories. These include gender relations and the emergence as well as occasional transformation of caste hierarchies. Scholars have also focused on regions with alternative, less stratified social structures. Religious traditions and cultural practices, including literary traditions, sculpture, painting, and architecture, etc, have also been examined, leading to stimulating discussions and debates.

Equally significant are environmental histories that have received increasing attention and are likely to become even more important and relevant as we face the crisis of climate change. In other words, historical research has moved beyond a focus on dynastic histories in many directions, and it is to be hoped that this trend continues in the future.

It is also perhaps somewhat ironical that, in the midst of celebrating 75 years of independence, which is being commemorated through Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav (AKAM) programmes in institutions and organisations throughout the country, we seem to be obsessed with empires. Surely, the freedom achieved in 1947 was significant because it marked a break from the British Empire and the end of colonial rule. It would be a pity if the opportunity to celebrate this event is reduced to one where we simply recall the existence of earlier empires in the subcontinent. It is time that we move beyond this preoccupation with empires—past and present—and focus more centrally on reconstructing the pasts of ordinary people, the vast majority, whose lives, struggles, and achievements are often lost and ignored if we remain fixated on kings and conquests. The challenge and excitement of reconstructing these pasts await all those who wish to both celebrate and safeguard the history of our democracy, and strengthen our understanding of those who have made it possible.




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Updated On : 18th Jun, 2022
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